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Motivations & Instincts: An Alternative System to Alignment in D&D 4E

players handbook 3rd edAs I mentioned in last Friday’s blog, Final Tweaks: Hidden Agendas, Alignments, & other Oddities in my Dark Sun Campaign , I have decided to restart my Detroit D&D Groups adventures on the harsh and brutal world of Athas!  And I referenced in that blog about a really good argument I read over at Mike’s D&D Blog for removing alignment entirely from D&D 4E (Time to Chuck Alignment).

Basically, the whole system of Alignment in D&D 4E is rather like the appendix in the human body – it’s a vestigial organ left over from an earlier state of evolution that doesn’t do much, but can actually cause problems in some folks.  In this case, Alignment is a vestigial system from earlier editions of the game which no longer has applications in the current edition of D&D.  Unlike the appendix, however, which can be removed with no lasting effects (except a scar), removing a system like Alignment from D&D 4E might be imprudent without considering some sort of alternative system to replace it.

A History of Alignment

alignment chartAs gamers who have been involved in D&D for a while know, Alignment used to have real effects on game mechanics from 1st Ed AD&D through 3.5.  The old alignment system took the axes of morals (Good versus Evil) and ethics (Lawful versus Chaos), with Neutrality in the center – and then mapped all combinations of those morals and ethics one could imagine in a neat and tidy 9-block grid.

So whether you were god or mortal, beast or demon, every creature was given an Alignment.  Further, Alignments formed the basis around which one was supposed to act as a D&D player-character.   But really this was a role-playing crutch, even sometimes a hindrance, and was not unknown to cause problems during any number of gaming sessions:

Player: “I’m done interrogating this orc.  I pull out a knife and slash his throat.”

DM: “Uhhh… wait a second there… you’re a Paladin, you have a Lawful Good alignment.  You can’t slay an orc in cold-blood. If you do, you’re not gonna be a Paladin anymore.”

Player: “Are you f… er kidding me?”

DM: “Hey watch it… I almost demoted you from Paladin to Fighter there.”

I am not sure of the official record, but I would have to say that conservatively I read over a dozen Dragon Magazine articles over the years arguing various points of alignment, and what a player-character could and could not get away with if he or she wanted to keep their alignment.  Because breaking alignment in the old days carried with is a price – lose of class status for some, loss of spells for clerics, and even the loss of levels – depending on what variant rules for breaking alignment your DM was using.

But one had to be somewhat strict about alignment because of all the spell effects that keyed off of it.    There were all kinds of spells – Protection from Evil (Good, Law, Chaos, etc), Dispel Evil/Good, Holy/Unholy Word – that keyed in on alignment and inflicted damage, buffs, and debuffs based upon one’s moral and ethical standing in the multiverse.  Even what happened to the character’s soul upon death and what deities he could worship were directly affected by alignment, so all around it was a major deal.

Now in D&D 4E, we have a trim and sleek alignment system of only types – Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil, and Chaotic Evil.  But why do we even have that?  There are no more spell effects that key off of one’s alignment anymore.  Even powers like Abjure/Smite/Turn/Rebuke Undead affect all undead – friend and foe alike – which has caused no end of consternation, I’d imagine, for some Revenant player-characters out there.  Really, the only reason alignment exists is to serve as a guideline for monster behavior, and to bundle deities into separate and neat little packages, so that divine characters have some idea what they are getting into when they aspire to serve their god.

A New Way

I’ve been doing more research into alternative systems for dealing with character actions, morals, and ethics as I geared up for my Dark Sun Campaign.  And I have decided the one I like best is one called Beliefs/Instincts/Goals, which is a system used by other role-playing games such as Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard.  Put simply, it helps to establish a character’s personality by setting down a few goals they believe in, and several instinctive behaviors that they always do.

Now I am not in favor of using the word Beliefs with the word Goals.  They feel a little mismatched to my thinking, and I have instead decided to just deal with Motivations – which are about the same thing.  I am keeping instincts, because I like those and think they really lend themselves to creating a more dynamic character.


Motivations at their most basic level should consist of your character’s short and long term goals, and at least one involving another member or members of the party. For my Dark Sun Campaign, I have asked for my players to start forming the first two before you begin play, inspired from their own characters’ histories.  Obviously, Motivations can be can be positive or negative in attitude, and should lead to a goal that can be accomplished during the course of the campaign.  The Motivations involving party members should be able to be developed after a couple play sessions as the team comes together, and will form the basis of further character and party interactions.  Anytime one starts an adventure or accepts a new quest from a patron, it is likely that a new Motivation will be generated, which a player can keep track of easily on the back of a character sheet.

As an example of Motivations, I’ve created a few for a ficticious Rogue character adventuring in Athas:

  • Long-term Motivation: “I want to become a crime boss of all the gangs in Tyr, so I can become rich beyond my wildest dreams”
  • Short-term Motivation: “I want to get into a gang, and become its leader, so I have the muscle to start becoming a crime boss.”
  • Party-oriented Motivation: “Kellis is a powerful warlock, and if I can manipulate her to help me with her dark powers, then I know I can take over a gang easy!”

So these three Motivations, containing some kind of attainable goal, will already begin to help form a character’s personality and how they will act as opportunities arise in the campaign.  How the Rogue chooses to manipulate Kellis, take over as leader of a gang, or become a crime lord are not dictated by a rigid alignment system, which gives the player considerably more options of behavior and action.

Motivations can and should be rewarded– most commonly with experience points but might also be boons or items – as they are achieved.  I asked my players in the Dark Sun Campaign to set down their long-term goal as something they can accomplish in the Heroic Tier, and their short term goal something that can happen over the course of a couple levels.  Short term Motivations will be replaced with another step toward their Long Term Motivation, and a new Long Term Goal will be set once the characters hit the start of the Paragon Tier (and later Epic Tier).


Instincts, on the other hand, are simply short descriptions of behaviors which your character has adopted as part of their lives.  They can usually be expressed in a simple sentence, and MUST include either the words “always” or “never” in the Instinct.  Instincts can also be created as an “if… then” statement, but should still have “always” or “never” in their structuring.  Instincts are always assumed to be active, and a DM can keep a list of Instincts handy for each character (like on a 3×5 card), and can use them to the hero’s benefit, whenever possible.

For my own Dark Sun Campaign, I’ve asked players to come up with 4-5 Instincts for their characters.  Personally, I think that too many Instincts would just cause confusion for the DM, so I am setting the maximum at 5.

Once again, using as an example our Athasian Rogue, here are some sample Instincts she might have:

  • “When I go to a new place, I always find at least two exits to get out fast.”
  • “I always hide a small bone dagger in my boot.”
  • “I never steal from the poor… they don’t have decent things to steal anyways.”
  • “If a fight appears to be brewing, I always palm a throwing knife to get a quick attack off if things go bad.”
  • “I’ll never go back to prison… I’d rather die first then let myself rot in a cell.”

Ok, so I stole that last Instinct was from “The Fast and the Furious“, but as you can see, Instincts have a power to help define the character very quickly and make them memorable in specific ways!  Hollywood uses Instincts all the time with movie characters, because they create absolutes that the audience can recognize and often identify with – and really define the role!
dnd bar fight
So let’s say a bar fight breaks out in a dive in Tyr’s Warrens District.  As a DM, I can look at the Rogue’s instincts, and know that as the fight starts, she has already pulled a throwing knife and is ready to use it.  Further, when the town guard shows up to stop the fight and arrest the rowdies, she is going to leave her comrades behind, diving out a window she noticed as a viable exit, so she would not have to be thrown in prison!  Now she might fail to escape the Templars, but knowing her Instincts allows the DM (me) to provide a more dynamic role-playing experience for the campaign, adding in story elements quickly and easily to the gaming session.

Gods and Monsters

So if we get rid of Alignment, and use Motivations and Instincts, how do we handle the behavior of gods, monsters, and other NPCs in the campaign?

Manual Instincts

Well, monsters and NPCs are the easiest to deal with – they are already designed with Motivations and Instincts right out of the box!  The monster manuals for D&D 4E are already filled to the brim with the motivations and instincts of monsters written up for us, usually in the flavor text, and often found in the Lore information with each monster entry.  Compared to the write-ups that the authors of MM, MM2, and MM3 have devised for monster entries – which include lore as well as tactics – alignment seems a completely superfluous entry on the monsters’ stat block.

Do I really need to know that an ankheg is Unaligned when it pops out of the ground to try and eat a horse riding over its lair?  Do I need to know that a demon, described as an “engine of destruction”, is really Chaotic Evil, when it breaks loose of its summoning circle and goes on a rampage?  Not really – all the motivation and instinct information is contained right there in the monster manual entries, helpfully provided by the authors, devs, and writers at Wizards of the Coast.

And NPCs are easy too – any DM worth his weight knows exactly why they are putting a particular NPC in an encounter, and know what its goals are, and what it wants to accomplish right as they are writing up their adventure.  Whether it is a combat encounter against cultists or a skill challenge to convince the mayor to evacuate outlying farms to save them from a surprise orc invasion, the DM knows the motivations of the NPCs right away, and there is little need for defining their behavior in terms of Good, Evil, or Unaligned alignments.

Divine Rights

Now the gods are a bit stickier to deal with, mainly because of the tendency of previous editions of D&D to confine deities to a specific alignment, and we have gotten used to viewing them that way.  It also makes it easier to role-play out a deity’s relationship with a similarly aligned cleric or paladin, so it is a bit harder to kick that crutch away when it seems to work so well.

zues picHowever, deities throughout all the editions have been wrongly pigeon-holed in alignments, because the authors of books like Deities & Demigods simply chose to ignore parts of mythology which were outside a given alignment.  Take Zues, for example, from the Greek Pantheon – he is listed in the DDG as having a Chaotic Good alignment.  Yet this is the same deity which committed any number of rapes and seductions, poking his… er… lightning bolt anyplace he felt like.  He was also a patricide, overthrowing his father Cronus, and casting him into enternal punishment in Tarterus.  And when his wife gave birth to a deformed god – Hephaestus – Zues threw the baby deity off Olympus to hopefully die.  And so this lustful, revolutionary, vengeful god is considered GOOD?

Maybe rather than be so concerned about a deities alignment in D&D 4E, we should be simply looking at their “portfolio” and considering what sorts of blessings and banes a god might rain down on mortals who please and displease them.  Look at Erathis as an example – this god is the “muse of great invention, founder of cities, and author of laws.”  And despite her interest in laws and civilization, she is listed as having an Unaligned alignment – but do we even need to know her alignment now?  A deity like Erathis would bless empire builders, conniving despots, and kindly kings equally, for they are all doing her will!  Erathis would be just as proud of a gnome artificer inventing a flying machine as she would a goblin fashioning a new type of torture device – both are inventions and are doing her service!  She would curse with equal spite at an orc invasion razing a elven city-state or a band of elves blasting a drow city of the Underdark.  Her portfolio is all you need to look at to determine how Erathis would respond to a plea from her worshippers – which might not always be what the player-characters would expect!

The Transplant

So I am going to be experimenting with having no alignments anymore in my Dark Sun game, and will use a new system transplanted in, and see how that works out.  I think my players have really embraced the Motivations and Instincts concepts and I am looking forward to our first session tonight to see it in action.  And although I must admit that I look back at alignment with a certain nostalgia, I think that its time has come and gone – like THAC0 and 20-die Fireballs – and it is time for a new system to take its place in the realm of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

So do you still adhere to alignments in 4E, or do you use some other system?  Is alignment really necessary anymore, or should we hang onto it for nostalgia sake?  As always, let me know your opinion – I enjoy your feedback and comments!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


3 Responses to “Motivations & Instincts: An Alternative System to Alignment in D&D 4E”

  1. Swordgleam says:

    Motivations sounds more like background plot hooks than anything alignment related. I like them – I just don’t think they have anything to do with alignment. You could easily have both in the same system.

    I really like the idea of instincts. They remind me a bit of some Whitewolf systems, where you have to roll against your Virtues to avoid taking a characteristic action. I can see them as a replacement for alignment in terms of “personality traits that structure your actions,” but I can also see using them just fine in a game with alignments.

    I like the system you have, but I don’t understand why you’re casting it as a replacement for alignments. You could remove alignments without replacing them with anything – I did, and plenty of others have – and you could also use your system alongside alignments.

  2. Dave says:

    We gamed for probably 20 years without alignments in a non D&D fantasy system and it was never much of an issue. After a while players would generally agree what character X or Y would likely do even if the owner player wasn’t around.

    Only time I remember having a distinct issue was when my fighter/theif (who was a robin hood type that often helped the underprivaliged but was also part of a major thieves guild and had an eye for the women, married or not) was faced with walking through a portal that would punish those who were not “good”. We debated if my character qualified as good or not for quite a while then I decided that my character was confortable with his own moral compass and wouldn’t risk judegement by an unknown source and decided not to go through. I had to swap out for one of my obviously good guy characters. But the GM could have made a call either way had I risked the portal.

  3. @Swordgleam – Well, I agree with your point – Alignment could be removed without replacement, especially in 4E – but I still like to think of Motivations & Instincts as a replacement system for Alignment – both systems are designed to represent behavioral guidelines and personality traits by which one’s character will act and react to adventuring situations. But I think that Alignment has always been a more confining system, whereas M&I is more open-ended, allowing a character to evolve their motivations, behaviors, and instincts over the course of the gaming experience, without penalty of feeling like they are breaking the rules.

    And certainly, M&I are more fundamentally rooted in the character’s background story, and that to me is their strength over the Alignment system. Declaring that one’s character is Lawful Good or Unaligned infers that somehow, during their character’s past, there were events such as upbringing, schooling, training, or life experience brought them to their current alignment. But how often does a player sit down and say to themselves, “I am Lawful Good because…” as they write their character’s background? Some do, but often Alignment is just simply assigned like a stat, even though it should be a profound part of how the character grew up to become a hero.

    And really, M&I are easier to comprehend for novice role-players than trying to explain Alignment – although admittedly , Alignment is easier to explain now than the old 9-point system. Most likely, that is why a system like M&I was used in Mouseguard, as it is more intuitively grasped by young role-players. For players who feel uncomfortable coming up with a 2000 word history for their D&D character, Motivations & Instincts offer a simpler, almost bullet-point, precis of their character’s mind-set, without having to fall into the catch-all definition of Alignment.

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